I smile when I remember the first meals I passed off as good eats. For every recipe, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a can of creamed soup for every recipe. We munched late night tater tots and frozen fish sticks when it still felt cool to have an oven and pay the electric bill. Life was good, even if my cooking wasn’t.
I began to pick up on things. Don’t be seduced by the discount on ketchup into buying half a dozen bottles. It will go back on sale before you have to stand the first one on end. True story.
Enter a deep freezer for Christmas. Stocking it became my favorite pastime. We scanned the sale ads for meat, prayed for rhubarb patches, and gleaned our friends’ sweet corn fields. Filling up the open space was easy. Turning the booty into treasure took more finesse.
I learned—by serving surprisingly tart lasagna at a large family gathering—to taste each element of a recipe and to start adjusting flavors. Cooking became a little less math and a lot more art.
Living in a foreign country puts a whole new spin on making good food. While U.S. style cans and brands are popping up on shelves here, they tend to be pricey when available. It’s been an adventure to adapt to the local offerings. Sometimes the results disappoint. Sometimes they get rave reviews. I thought you might enjoy a peek into the process.
If you were in my mother-in-law’s kitchen making her Italian Soup, you would cook up some Jimmy Dean Italian sausage and ground beef, chop onion, celery, & carrots, open 5 cans (tomatoes, tomato sauce, red beans, green beans), shake in some seasoning, and set the pot to simmer. A fair amount of work, but still possible on a weeknight.
Here in Costa Rica, it all starts with the weekly farmer’s market. The best prices and selection, along with cheerful banter, happen there before lunchtime. It’s the only place to get baby green beans that aren’t matured to bumpy toughness. Cruise the stalls for fresh tomatoes, celery, carrots, and onions, too. Feel pleased that you understood the numbers rattled off so quickly in Spanish. Ask how everyone’s family is, as you count out your coins and brightly colored bills to pay. Stop at the brick and mortar grocery store on the way home for dry beans, tomato paste, ground pork, and beef.
At home, set your kiddos to snap the green beans so you can get them washed and steaming. I know it’s tempting to throw them raw into the soup, but remember the one time we tried that. Right, it tasted like grass. Some people might go for that. We prefer soup with green beans over Green Bean Soup.
Brown the pork and beef like normal, adding seasonings to make the plain pork more like sausage. It’s okay, you can google the recipe. Try not to marvel that there is absolutely no fat in the pork. Drain off the water that made up the other 15% of your ground beef. Cattle in this country have to grow big on grass, so most red meat here is lean.
Chop/slice the onion, celery, and carrots as usual, and then before you clear the cutting board, seed and dice your pounds of fresh tomatoes. This is where we give thanks that we spent our Christmas money on a food processor.
Hydrate the tomato paste back into a sauce with water. For real, it’s a thing. Yes, you can buy 4 oz packets of tomato sauce at the store. But who wants to open and squeeze out (and pay for) 8 of them per batch? One and a third large packets of paste will get you a rich 4 cups of sauce. Whisk in a little sugar and salt to make it tasty.
If you are getting tired at this point, I usually am, too. Think of those dear faces who gather at your dinner table. Keep going. You can do it. I believe in you.
If you forgot to soak your dry beans overnight, you can bring them to a boil and quick soak them for an hour. It really does help our bellies to drain the soak water afterwards. Get them going in fresh water in the pressure cooker for a 40 min. process, or set them to boil for a few hours. (Check to make sure they softened up. Every once in a while, life sells you some old beans that refuse to dance to the music of moisture and heat. It’s helpful to realize they are still crunchy before you marry them to the rest of your ingredients. Another lesson learned the hard way. The kids tried not to complain too much.) Drain and rinse the cooked beans to keep the aforementioned “soup-with-beans”-over-Bean-Soup balance.
When everything is (finally) ready, put it all into one extra grande pot and add the seasonings. Let’s be honest, you always add too many beans and vegetables to stretch the batch, so add double of every flavoring to start. If you happen to have any pepperoni, whether smuggled in from the states or bought locally with hefty import taxes, dice up a bit of the precious goodness and throw it in with love. Bring to a simmer for the flavors to meld, and keep tinkering with more tomato paste, salt, pepper, sugar, hot sauce, basil, and oregano until you say, “Mmmmm.”
It only took you most of the day. That’s why you made a huge batch. Now the family has a hearty supper and the freezer has some treasure to chill. It may not exactly be my mother-in-law’s Italian soup, but it is definitely cross cultural good eats. Enjoy!